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On the Road Again
Thoughts on tour + work + travel
I’m writing this from a delightfully empty gate at JFK airport, where my family and I are about to board a plane for our last summer adventure. Even though I often fantasize about having more children (a baker’s dozen! a barbershop quartet!), I will admit that it is very, very nice to have graduated to the stage of parenting where the children are old enough to pull their own suitcases and carry their own backpacks. (Mine are also plugged into their own Nintendo switches, enabling me to do this right now, but I know some people dislike screens. To each their own.) We are moving toward a more companionable kind of travel, and we have long left behind that miserable baby-stage of having to create a dark nap cave in some beachside Airbnb.
Yesterday, I was using an old notebook that had in it only a Photo Booth picture, tucked in like a bookmark. The photo strip was of me, my husband, and our friend Claudia, taken in the lobby of the ACE hotel in Portland, OR in 2008. We are about to fly to Portland, and so maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about it, but it did set me into a certain kind of nostalgic reverie.
I’ve written a lot about working for The Magnetic Fields—you can read some things in the Paris Review, and Vogue—but what I’m thinking about right now, as I sit across the aisle from my husband and my children, watching them eat snacks and read books and share headphones to listen to music together, what I’m thinking about is how much fun it was to travel with other people.
It was work—we were working. In case you don’t want to click links, because that seems overwhelming, here are the cliff’s notes. I worked as Stephin Merritt’s personal assistant from 2002-2006, and whenever the band went on tour, from 2002-2012, my husband and I went with them and sold the merch.
We were, to be frank, great at it. By which I mean that my husband was great at all the important parts—helping Stephin make the merch, ordering the merch, lugging the merch, arranging the merch nicely in the lobbies, counting everything, dealing with the money. Here’s what I was good at—accepting people’s love notes and homemade pies, taking photos, keeping our tour blogs, smiling. Together we were the comic relief, a good buffer for the band, and good dinner dates for whoever wanted to explore whatever city we were in. We spent a lot of time in vans and in airports.
When I say it was work, what I mean is that we were getting paid to be there, and we were doing a job, but it was a vocation. I loved being whatever we were to the band—helpful, funny distractions—and what we were to the fans—conduits, helpers, stand-ins. Stephin once told me that I was social lubricant for heterosexual men, which was true. Heterosexual men often didn’t know what to do with him, but they could always talk to me. I was a bodyguard for people I loved, both a part of the team and very much a part of the audience.
Part of what I love the most is that it’s a group of people who come together for short bursts of time, and have done so for decades, like characters in a mystery novel. They retreat to their home lives—with spouses or dogs or children or problems—but when they are together, they fall into these familiar patterns, their own little society, and we were members of that society for a long time.
I went through and picked a few photos, just a few from literal thousands, and mostly what I feel is this: this group of people was so fucking nice to me, and to Mike. They let me be their opening act! Stephin tried to teach me to play the uke. They let us make and sell posters, they let us truly feel a part of the whole thing. Stephin let me drunkenly explain to him at my 23rd birthday party why the first New Kids on the Block album was so good. (Reader: it’s not. Except that it is, to me.) What an incredible gift. The band, the tour managers, the sound guy. Everyone.
It’s sort of the way I think about my whole life, actually, that work is so much a part of what I do—writing, being a writer, being a bookseller—that it’s more than a job, it’s my whole person. And it’s nice to share that with other people.
The band has been touring a lot, and next year, they’re performing all of 69 Love Songs, over two nights, in a bunch of cities. We will be there. You should be, too. I wouldn’t miss it for the whole fucking world. Mike wants us to sell merch. We’ll see.
(John, Sam, Claud, Shirley, Stephin, YMike, Tourganizer….love you guys.) (No one show this to Stephin, it’s too schmoopie for him.)